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The Pursuit of Happiness

David Berger



“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”—That’s what our country was founded on, and not coincidentally is at the center of my existence. I’m doing my best to prolong my life, stay out of prison and sustain the government that guarantees me these two rights. But the pursuit of happiness; what is that?


I recently read an article that posited that pursuing happiness leads to depression since we always fall short. First of all, we don’t always fall short. If you look at happiness as a temporary or fleeting feeling, I’ve certainly attained that many times over in my life, and even for the most part on a daily basis. If you expect happiness to be permanent, then you are asking for trouble. Nothing in the universe is permanent, so why should anything in our lives be? We are all going to die one day. Not only our own deaths, but the demise of our loved ones and heroes will not make us happy.


I prefer to look at the long game. First there is the happiness that I get from expectation. Just imagining and thinking about future happiness gives me great pleasure. When I write music, I am imagining sounds in my head, figuring out who should play what and committing the notation of the music to paper and eventually to the computer. Duke Ellington called himself a dreamer. #metoo.


At this stage of my life, I have many wonderful memories, which I get great pleasure from revisiting. Remembering isn’t as great as experiencing, but I can run my highlight reel inside my head whenever and wherever I am. It reminds me of who I am and what makes me happy. Whenever I get down on myself for not being perfect or accomplishing all the things that I would like to, I look at my cherished moments, and think, “Pret-ty, pret-ty, good.” How lucky I have been.


I’m not saying this to be competitive with anyone else. What makes me happy is different from other people. Not everyone would enjoy spending eight hours a day putting dots in between lines on paper. Certainly my taste in women is different from other men. In a world obsessed with soccer (they call it football), I love tennis and baseball. Happiness is personal. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.


At this moment I am sitting at my computer, which sits on my desk in my office. I’m surrounded on three walls by bookcases filled with 250 black archival boxes containing hundreds of thousands of sheets of music that I’ve written. That’s an awful lot of music. I’ve devoted a tremendous number of my waking hours over the past 55 years to composing and arranging music. What is it about writing music that fascinates me, feels so gratifying and at the same time is meditative?


I love using my imagination, and then I love rehearsing each piece and having the musicians not only breathe life into my music, but also express themselves through it. I enjoy the recording process—trying to make the perfect representation of where the music is on that particular day. Music evolves over time, so a recording is merely a snapshot frozen in time. I also love performing music for audiences. They could be listeners or dancers. It’s like I’m saying to them, “The band and I have discovered something really beautiful that we would like to share with you.” Hopefully they will pat their feet and feel the music inside them. This is a deep form of bonding.


Although these are the most obvious and superficial reasons I love writing music, there is one more that underlies all this and goes beyond music. It is my love of organization. Composing and arranging music is organizing sound, making order of chaos. The process of organization is what fascinates me most and keeps me dreaming.


I come by this naturally. My father was an obsessive organizer. He saved every piece of string, rubber band, paper clip, nail, screw, nut, bolt, piece of paper, pencil; you name it, he saved it. He had drawers devoted to each. Everything was neat and orderly. When he got to his office in the morning, his receptionist would dump the day’s mail on his desk, by the end of the day, he disposed of each piece of mail in that giant pile. Only then was it time to go home.


Sadly, in his later years, he became quite senile. He lost the ability to speak and then to follow a conversation. But that didn’t stop him from reorganizing the walk-in closet he shared with my mom. It drove her nuts. She would tell me that she never knew where anything was.


I wrote a book about organizing sounds, Creative Jazz Composing and Arranging. I’m in the process of writing the last chapter of Volume 2, which is about writing songs and vocal arrangements. In explaining how I write music (and how others write music), I unearth the secrets that lie in our subconscious minds that form the substance of our art. So much of what artists do is instinctive, but those instincts are in reality thought processes that have been repeated in various forms over a period of years or even decades. The sense of order that separates Mozart from his contemporaries is not subjective nor did it happen by chance.


Understanding your art is as important to artistic success as self-awareness is to leading a happy and productive life. I recently watched a documentary on Ted Williams, the great Boston Red Sox slugger. When asked what he wanted out of baseball, he said he wanted to be able to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes the greatest hitter that ever lived.” Well, he achieved that, and he did it by analyzing his swing and perfecting it. Before him, it was see-the-ball-and-hit-it. He ushered in the era of analytics. Oddly enough, he had little to no self-knowledge. His personal life was a mess. He had no control of his emotions and constantly hurt those around him. Everyone wanted to love him, but he made it difficult-to- impossible.


An artist’s work is deeply connected to his/her personal/inner life. We solve our life problems symbolically through our art. As hard as it is to create a great work of art, as far as I can see, solving our life problems is ten times harder. Maybe art is easier to control than all the people and circumstances of your life. I’m not sure. One thing that I do know is that analyzing problems and solving them is key to success in both areas.


Sometimes we can see a problem and its solution, but sometimes we need outside help. I welcome criticism for just this reason. Of course, not all criticism will be helpful. Sometimes even our best friends can be wrong, or maybe have a dog in the race. I often tell people that it’s OK for us to agree to disagree as long as we are both honest and in search of the truth.


Many people are uncomfortable with disagreement of any kind. They prefer the company of people who think like them, speak like them and look like them. For me this is limiting and ultimately boring. Things outside myself that are different excite me. This inspires me. I’m never going to be a woman, but women fascinate me. The same goes for other professions, other languages, countries and cultures. They do not intimidate me. I’m perfectly secure in my love for jazz, America, New York City, Roger Federer and the Yankees. None of these is perfect, but they all do it for me.



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  • Dennis Winkle on

    Thanks Dave, this is great! I always look forward to your blog.

  • Nancy Valentine on

    Beautifully written. Thank you, David.

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